On Thursday, Michael S. Rosenwald of The Washington Post published an article detailing the relationship between Adolf Hitler and his mother, Klara. Entitled Hitler’s mother was ‘the only person he genuinely loved.’ Cancer killed her decades before he became a monster, Rosenwald tells of Hitler’s close relationship with a doting and devoted mother, distant relationship with an abusive father, and overall petulant attitude of a spoiled child. A more accurate title would be: Average Teenager Adolf Hitler Loved His Mother. So What?
Rosenwald’s article offers many factually accurate anecdotes about the early life of Adolf Hitler, emphasizing how close he was with his mother who perhaps overindulged the future Führer as a kind of compensation for her husband’s abusive behavior toward their son. While Rosenwald does not say so explicitly, I can think of no reason to tell this story expect to perhaps explain World War II and the Holocaust as having seeds in these relationships.
I will not offer a psycho-history of Hitler or any speculation as to whether or not Hitler’s upbringing had anything to do with him becoming a genocidal dictator. We can all think of counter-examples of people who also grew up in harrowing circumstances and who did not become mass murderers. The converse is also true: there are scores of examples of murderers who grew up on tree-lined suburban streets with loving parents. History is not destiny.
I will not offer my own take on Hitler’s upbringing because, frankly, I do not care about Hitler’s upbringing and neither should you.
Adolf Hitler is easily responsible for the deaths of millions of people, but what makes their deaths worthy of remembering and honoring is not who was responsible for taking their lives, but that their lives were taken. Moreover, the way they lived is so much more important than how they died. The way the story of the Holocaust is all too often told, through the exclusive lens of the perpetrators, results in a romanticizing of the killers, and casting the victims as afterthoughts in the history of their own extermination.
So much time and effort and energy is devoted to exploring every aspect of the lives of the killers; attempting to understand where the antecedents of their genocidal psyches coalesced. Any leisurely stroll through a chain bookstore will offer the prospective reader an unending bounty of biographies of Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Goebbels, Eichmann and so many other killers. Yet these perpetrators are only “famous” because their victims outnumber them by the millions…so where can we find their stories? Excluding Anne Frank’s diary and the memoirs of Primo Levi or Ellie Wiesel, the interested reader is hard-pressed to find much literature devoted to the actual victims and their experiences, exactly as Hitler wanted.
The Third Reich was obsessed with history, grandeur, and longevity. These plans were supposed to be dashed by the Allied victory in World War II, yet we, the descendants of the victors and victims, are willingly giving Hitler posthumous victories by spending our time and treasure romanticizing the Third Reich, and forgetting its victims. This is what Hitler wanted, and just as it was essential for humanity to put an end to the killings at Auschwitz, it’s equally important to not become an unwitting sycophant of the Third Reich by obsessing over the perpetrators and forgetting the victims.
The victims of the Holocaust often died in unmarked graves, the records of their communities burned in bonfires in town squares, the headstones of their relatives smashed for pavement, their photo-albums and recipe-books tossed in the gutter. The Holocaust was not just horrific because it took lives, it was also horrific because it took histories. When you wipe out a community it’s said that you destroy every generation which would have come after it, and that is true. But when you wipe out a community you also destroy every generation which came before; their stories are also gone. The children of Holocaust survivors are often called second-generation survivors, making their parents, the survivors, the first generation. There is nothing before a first-generation. But in the case of the Holocaust we know that’s just not true. The Nazis may have tried to steal histories, but we can thwart that theft today by keeping the memory of the victims alive. We also have the power to abet that theft by remembering the perpetrators and forgetting their victims.
To defeat Hitler in 1945 took guns and tanks and bombs. To defeat Hitler today only takes a library card or Google search. Writing more stories about Hitler and his “troubled childhood” takes us dangerously close to the type of “softcore” Holocaust denial peddled by people like Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful.
This coming Monday will be marked as Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Instead of reading about teenage Hitler going to the theater with his mother, if you wish to remember and honor the victims of the Holocaust, do not pick up a(nother) Hitler biography or watch a documentary about World War II. If you want to honor the victims then do just that: honor the victims, learn about their communities, say their names, and tell their stories…not those of their killers.
Hitler’s name will never be lost to history, so don’t concern yourself with keeping it alive. Remember a victim, someone Hitler wanted you to forget, and instead of giving Hitler another victory 70 years after his death, land one more blow to the Nazis and honor those they tried so hard to wipe from human history.
Recommended Holocaust readings *not* about perpetrators:
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Countrymen by Bo Lidegaard
Samuel J. Aronson is an Assistant Dean at the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC. He specializes in the role of science and technology in the Holocaust.